June 4th Tiananmen Square Candlelight Vigil in Hong Kong:
The fourth of June in World History and the narrative of China (widely known as simply “64”) marks the 25th anniversary of the student-led pro-democracy movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that was violently crushed by the People’s Liberation Army in 1989.
A BIT OF HISTORY: The protests initially began in April of ‘89 when groups of students gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the loss of leading government reformer Hu Yaobang. Out of their grief, protests were sparked by university students crying out against the slow pace of reform. The foundation of the students’ cries of protest were the pillars of greater freedom, a call to the end of corruption, and plans to overthrow the communist party.
Hundreds of people joined the student-led protests each day, and by late May the government eventually sent in thousands of troops to declare martial law in Beijing and squash the peaceful demonstrations. As the students and protesters stood firm in their plans to occupy the square, violence erupted once the troops and officers began using excessive force to clear the grounds. People were shot within close range, and tanks were used to scatter people though crushing many. Through it all the world watched the entire event unfold.
Many student-leaders of the protests were taken to prison while others went into exile outside of mainland China. A quarter of a century has passed since China attempted to silence the students with amplified voices on Tiananmen Square, and the Chinese government considers the event counter-revolutionary banning the acknowledgement of the massacre or discussion of it in public within the country. The message of the protest, however, still resonates with many who reside in Hong Kong and who support it in solidarity outside of the mainland borders across the world.
ANNUAL COMMEMORATIVE CANDLE LIGHT VIGIL: Last night in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, a candle-light vigil, the largest of its kind on China soil, was attended by tens of thousands of local people, as well as visitors and press from around the world. The New School IFP crew that I came to HK with, along with our faculty directory, attended the historic vigil, which is the most important and symbolic event illustrating the differences between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Never in my life have I been a part of such a monumental commemorative event, and experiencing it here in HK made it even more of an extraordinary moment in my own personal history.
Every year the vigil is held in remembrance of those who lost their lives while seeking [greater] democracy. The former student activists who survived the massacre called for an end to corruption within the government, and today many of China’s mainland residents are still privately displeased with similar grievances and fully take advantage of coming to Hong Kong to participate in the public Victoria Park demonstration which cannot be done in Beijing.
VICTORIA PARK VIGIL: I arrived at Victoria Park about two and a half hours before the ceremony began. A colleague and I were really eager to see and experience the entire event from beginning to end, considering that this may be the only time in our lives that we are in Hong Kong during the historic vigil. From the moment stepping off the MRT at Tin Hau, the scene was thick and electric. I’m not entirely sure of Hong Kong’s protest culture, but certain organizations and individuals definitely had the urgent militancy act down. Not that it was an act, but with the amount of people and the fervency they used to get the attention of supporters, it was all very theatrical. Similar to that of the subway car and street corner evangelists in New York City preaching redemption to passersby each day, these activists have definitely perfected a commanding, if not arresting, art form.
Stopping for some street food snacks and fresh squeezed watermelon juice, we zigzagged through the early throngs of people and uniformed police officers until we reached Victoria Park. At 5:30p, it was fairly sparse with handfuls of organizers, early supporters and spectators claiming space on the court grounds. I walked around and snapped pictures of the monument to the slain students, marked by large wreaths of fragrant white lilies and other white and purple flowers. Each wreath was accompanied by signs with Chinese characters on them, which I suspect were names of confirmed deceased, though I can never be sure. Meanwhile, it is still unclear how many students and spectators lost their lives during this crisis in 1989. In the middle of the wreaths stood an erect monument and a crafted statue of the image of democracy. A few feet away stood an even larger statue of the Goddess of Democracy with the June 4, 1989 inscribed on the front and back.
After taking dozens of pictures of the monuments, I made my way to the very front of the spectator section, naturally setting up camp in front of the where the band would be playing on stage. I had no idea a band would even be there, but I knew I would like to watch them as they sound-checked and throughout the memorial, whatever they’d be playing (which turned out to be variations of the songs written by the student protesters in 1989). At this time of day, it was still sweltering with heat, and realizing that I still had about two hours before the event would begin, I pulled out my pashmina and draped it over a section of the concrete where I would remain camped out for the remaining hours. The ground was hotter than comfort would allow, but when I looked around at the Chinese and Hong Kong nationals arriving and sitting squarely on the ground without discomfort, I settled into the heat and continued to observe my surroundings. If my buns had to be toasted in order to get the full experience, so be it! The most magical moments, however, would not occur until sitting for a while and encountering the welcoming spirit of the people around me.
Humanity shows itself in the most meaningful ways. Don’t ask me what I expected in the way of being a Black American woman in the middle of a Chinese memorial vigil in Hong Kong, but what I encountered was just short of fascinating. As time wore on, and the sun began to set, and the sweat continued to pour, I found myself among an interesting little cadre of people:
There was the gentleman in front of me, who offered napkins to wipe my sweat and invited me to pull my pashmina up closer to the barrier so that I would be closest to the action (or him) as possible so no one would step in front of me during the event. When I thanked him in Cantonese, he was surprised and asked if I spoke more. I don’t. But even still, he was amused. Asking where I am from, he explained that he has a brother in Queens and one in Long Island. We made more small talk and he mentioned that he’d been coming to the Victoria Park June 4th candlelight vigil each year since its inception. I would have asked him more questions, but I got the feeling that he was feeling me a little too much, and my suspicions were confirmed later when he asked me to dinner. I kindly declined, but I appreciated his warm encounter nevertheless, as I’d like to think it wasn’t only because he thought I’d be an easy date.
Next to him was a young Chinese guy with a huge afro I wanted to touch. I kept looking at him and appreciated his style, but never got to have a conversation with him. It seemed as if this was his first time attending the vigil though. On the other side of me were Carmen and Moses, Hong Kong natives who study at a university in Sydney. Carmen first asked where I was from, leading to the increasing list of places to which I’ve traveled. When I mentioned Australia a few months ago her eyes lit up. Unfortunately, I did not go to Sydney, but she was impressed that I’d been to so many places and made me promise to visit Sydney when I got the chance. Her boyfriend, Moses, was equally charming, and they explained that this was also their first time attending the vigil. She was curious to know if I had grown up knowing about the events of Tiananmen Square and the candlelight vigil, and I explained that I’d only learned about it in depth this past January as a part of my university course. She didn’t quite understand why I was there so early and why I would stay the whole time thinking I’d get bored because the whole ceremony would be conducted in Cantonese and Mandarin. But I explained that this would be FAR from boring and that as far as I was concerned, it would be a once in a lifetime experience that I needed to authentically witness in its entirety.
The real characters arrived shortly after my conversation with Carmen and Moses. The most animated individuals planted themselves behind me, shouting chants and slogans with or without megaphones throughout the demonstration, laughing and singing every song to the top of their lungs, carrying on with just as much revelry as solemnness. They seemed to be a small crew of long time vigil attendees, and one wonders if they were a part of the actual students in Tiananmen Square back in ’89, or if they simply were supporters then who have maintained their fervent position throughout the years. Then there was the gentleman to my far left, who never said a word directly to me, but once he saw that my candle light had gone out, he leaned over to relight mine with his. And then when the candle had burned to a waxy pulp, he handed me another one to light and continue with my observation of the memorial.
These are the ten immediate individuals who made this experience so distinct for me; however, with close to 200,000 people in attendance, it’s no wonder that I never crossed paths with my colleagues and faculty director during the event. Nevertheless, in the midst of taking video, and audio, photos of everything and a thousand selfies, I found myself tapping into the solemnness of the entire demonstration. Afterall, the ceremonial aspects of the processional which placed the main floral arrangement at the monument, and the other aspects of the event, forced you to remain respectful of the memory of the lost lives back in Tiananmen Square. However, I could not get enough photos and video snippets of the thousands of people in my area, all sitting on the ground with lighted candles, singing and chanting for the memory of their fallen martyrs.
I wish the ceremony could have been interpreted. But, there was something very poignant and poetic about attending and not entirely understanding what was being said, moment to moment, speech by speech, and song lyric by song lyric. Who knows if I’ll ever get to know what was being said directly, anytime soon, but I know what the spirit of the event said to me, and the world over.